To grasp the scale of Syria’s refugee crisis, consider mornings at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan: Young boys climb barbed-wire fences to gain better spots in distribution lines, as UN World Food Program workers hand out a half million pieces of pita bread.
More than 120,000 refugees live in the camp, making it the second largest refugee camp in the world. The influx of war victims has swelled the area to the fourth largest population center in Jordan. The UN reports that running the camp costs nearly $1 million a day.
Now consider this: Most Syrian refugees don’t live in refugee camps. The masses in the Zaatari camp represent a small fraction of more than 2 million Syrians who have fled their war-torn country in the last two years. That’s nearly 10 percent of Syria’s population.
War has displaced another 7 million Syrians who remain in the country. (At least 100,000 people have died in the conflict.) Aid workers expect that a significant portion of the displaced Syrian citizens may flee the country as well.
It’s a massive calamity that the UN calls the world’s worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
It’s also compounded by a stark reality: Refugees are flooding into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq—nations with economic problems and sectarian tensions of their own that make hosting refugees a momentous challenge.
Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, president of the Catholic relief agency Caritas, told the Migration Policy Centre: “The refugees are Christians and Muslims. They are exhausted and desperate. … If the exodus has to continue, the situation could rapidly spin out of control.”
For now, the challenge of helping refugees falls to a range of groups like the UN and national governments. But it also falls to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) partnering with local groups, including churches closely connected to communities in need.
With winter approaching, and Syria’s war continuing, the refugee crisis shows no sign of slowing. For churches and other local groups, helping Syrians may mean learning how to offer a home to refugees who may never return to their own.
The largest numbers of Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring Lebanon. By mid-October, the UN reported nearly 800,000 refugees living in the country, while Lebanese officials estimated the number had passed 1 million. In a small nation of 4 million people, Syrian refugees now comprise nearly 20 percent of Lebanon’s population.
Despite the huge influx, Lebanese officials have resisted forming refugee camps. The country already hosts nearly 400,000 Palestinian refugees who have lived in sprawling camps for decades. Officials—and Lebanese citizens—worry forming Syrian camps could repeat that dynamic.
The UN provides food vouchers, hygiene kits, household items, and some healthcare services to thousands of registered refugees. But substantial needs remain. The Migration Policy Centre reported: “Most refugees live in precarious conditions, with few or no financial resources to meet their needs. The main challenges are those of access to accommodation, food, water, sanitation, health care and security.”
When it comes to accommodations, many refugees scrounge for shelter where they can find it. Though some have enough savings to pay rent in decent apartments in larger cities, that’s created another problem: Rents are soaring, and Lebanese citizens resent the price hikes.
Some also resent refugees overwhelming already burdened public services, and they worry about competition for jobs. Indeed, the Syrian collapse has created an economic downturn: Syria was a large market for Lebanese goods before the war, and the country’s demise has stung the Lebanese economy.
Meanwhile, the country struggles with sectarian tensions. From their stronghold in Beirut, the group Hezbollah supports the Syrian regime. That creates tensions and fear for refugees perceived as unaligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Many Syrian refugees live in less urban areas, and some pay exorbitant prices for ramshackle rooms without amenities like heating or plumbing. It’s a problem repeated in other countries across the region as well.
A worker in the Middle East with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention—who asked not to be identified for security purposes—recently visited Syrian families who had fled to a neighboring country.
“One location we visited had two stories but no doors and no windows in the 12-by-12 structure,” he wrote in an email. “It had previously been used by animals and was in a very low-lying area, susceptible to flooding and disease. There were at least four families living there—I counted around 16-20 people, children in the midst.”
Some NGOs are searching for creative ways to meet housing needs. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) renovates rundown apartments for refugees to live in. The arrangement: NRC makes improvements—like fixing or installing plumbing, patching holes, and rewiring electricity—if landlords allow refugees to stay in the renovated apartments rent-free for one year.
Since many landlords couldn’t afford to make such improvements, some have accepted the proposal. But at least one group recounted problems: Advocacy group Refugees International reported that an NGO doing similar work said one landlord evicted a refugee family from a renovated property after only a few months. NGOs have few options to enforce the contracts if landlords break their promises.
Dozens of other NGOs work in Lebanon, including Christian groups like Food for the Hungry. The organization delivers aid to a network of local churches through the group Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), also known as Lebanese Baptist Aid.
Rupen Das directs the aid efforts for LSESD, and outlined the group’s efforts: They’ve provided monthly food aid to at least 2,200 families through 18 local churches and one Christian NGO, medical assistance to at least 200 people through a local Christian group, and winter items like blankets, mattresses, and stoves to 1,500 families.
The group also started a school for 135 Syrian refugee children in one of the local churches. For the nearly 1 million Syrian refugee children across the region, it’s a critical service: Many have missed schooling for months. In Lebanon, most refugee families can’t afford the private schools that comprise much of Lebanon’s educational system.
Das says the needs remain overwhelming, and that delivering relief through local churches is key to effective aid: “They are there long-term. They have the relationships and as a result have credibility.”
In other countries, NGOs work through local groups as well. A slew of Islamic groups work with needy populations in Turkey. Christian groups like World Relief and World Vision deliver aid in Jordan. World Vision installed a water and hygiene system for 30,000 residents at one refugee camp. World Relief’s projects include training churches to offer trauma counseling for those fleeing war zones.
Though Iraq gets less attention in the Syrian crisis, nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees have poured into the nation. Nearly 25,000 of those refugees arrived in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region over a three-day period in August.
The Christian organization Samaritan’s Purse has been delivering aid in the Kurdistan region for months. Deliveries to refugee camps have included rice, cooking oil, and other food staples. In another camp, the group has focused on projects like shoe distributions, baby kits for expectant mothers, and a sewing center to provide a means of income for vulnerable women.
Ken Isaacs, vice president of international programs for Samaritan’s Purse, says the group has worked with local churches to deliver supplies to some of the refugee camps in the area.
One field worker described a refugee who arrived at a church for food after a church member invited him: The father of five left Syria with his family five months ago, and suffers a disability in his leg and arm. He worked at a shoe factory in Syria, but hasn’t been able to find work in Iraq. He spends most days begging for money at a busy intersection to provide for his family. A local Christian spotted him, and invited him to the church for food supplies. The father told church members he was relieved to find help.
“The church in Kurdistan is small,” says Isaacs. “But it is extremely motivated to help the refugee response.”
Southern Baptists see a similar dynamic among Christians in other parts of the region. “Like the region itself, the church has been overwhelmed with the vast need and incredible suffering of these Syrians feeling the horrors of war in their homeland,” said the Baptist worker who recently visited refugee families. “My prayer is that the church outside of the region would be challenged to step up and be there for these most needy of peoples.”
(Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)
Aleppo is still severely besieged. Where are we heading? Nobody knows. We are totally cut off: from the world, from all other Syrian cities, and even from within. We are cut off from our relatives, friends, and family members abroad. What misery is my Aleppo city! But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord.
Before the Syrian crisis, the governorate of Aleppo was home to more than 22 percent of Syria’s total population and Aleppo city was the economic capital of Syria, the center of industry, trade, and agriculture. During the heavy fighting since February 2012, opposition forces gained control over the whole northern area between Aleppo and the Turkish border, including two main official border crossings. Most of the northeastern part of the city is in the hands of opposition groups, while the southwestern neighborhoods remain under Syrian government control.
We continue to be supportive to needy families with food relief, drinking water supply, and a medical care ministry. Daily we feel overloaded with the shortage of staff and with the sounds of demand. Bread and other food commodities are major concerns to everyone. Fighting is increasingly occurring around the key supply routes, hampering the transport of goods to and within Aleppo. The international road between Aleppo and Latakia [Syria’s main port] has been cut after a main bridge was destroyed. The Aleppo-Damascus highway, a vital road supplying western Aleppo with basic commodities, is closed due to heavy fighting, with tens of deaths (mainly Christians and Armenians) and hundreds of wounded and injured victims. With all this, an estimated 4 million Syrians are unable to produce or buy enough food, and many of these are in Aleppo.
Where do we stand now? In “no-man’s-land” but covered by God’s grace! Every week families seek to register with the churches for the monthly supply of relief aid. Our church committees are working day and night, fulfilling their call and standing in the gap, extending their supporting arms and shouldering the needy families. More than 12,456 families are enrolled in the program, supported by more than 37 other organizations and many individuals.
All those families are lifting the supporters in their daily prayers, praising God for their attitudes and being with them in such a very hectic, gloomy, difficult period of time.
—The writer is a physician living in Aleppo, who is not identified for security purposes